Buy Your Groceries European-Style

By Philip Brewer on 22 March 2010 (Updated 23 March 2011) 37 comments
Photo: John Vachon

Make a grocery list and stick to it? That's a piece of advice that'll cost you a lot of money. The theory, I guess, is that you're so terribly prone to impulse buying that you can't be trusted to wander free in a grocery store. The reality, though, is that you can save a lot of money if you can make yourself trustworthy.

I was actually taught to make a shopping list in school. I think it was part of the health curriculum — the same unit where we learned the four food groups. It came as part of a whole scheme that involved checking the grocery store ads, basing a menu around what was cheap, and then creating a shopping list for the week. It's an adequate shopping strategy, not so unreasonable for someone who works full time and can barely fit in a once-a-week trip to the grocery store. But it means that you're both paying more and missing out on the freshest, best-looking food.

I think of the alternative as "European-style" shopping, although it was perfectly ordinary in the United States as well, back in the days when people shopped at grocery stores, back before the invention of the supermarket. It still works fine, though, even in a supermarket.

When I'm buying groceries for the household, I shop almost every day. Instead of planning a menu in advance, I go to the store and look around to see what looks good. That way, I can get whatever's fresh and cheap.

Meat in particular gets marked down as it approaches its sell-by date. You can't do much with that sort of deal if you only shop once a week, because you won't want to be cooking meat a week after its sell-by date. However, since I'm going to cook it that same day, I'm perfectly happy buying something on its sell-by date — at which point it's often been marked down to a fraction of its regular price.

I rarely find such great deals in produce, but whatever's local and in-season is usually cheap, and there's no substitute for browsing in person for finding what looks best.

So, that's what I do. I may make a list to remind me of any regular items that I need to get, but then I look to see what looks good and what's cheap. Since I know I have a pantry full of staples, I'm confident that I can make a meal out of whatever I find. (I talk about those skills in Frugalize Any Recipe and Teach Yourself to Cook.)

It may seem like a lot of effort to go shopping every day, but it's actually a quick and easy trip. Since I'm only getting a few items, it doesn't take very long and I can do it on foot.

It's easy to do — in fact, you can even combine buying cheap and fresh food with weekly shopping (although you wouldn't want to stock up on meat close to its sell-by date). All you have to do is trust yourself to go for good deals on real food instead of making impulse buys of stuff you shouldn't be eating anyway — and then be worthy of that trust.

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Guest's picture

I think that this is feasible if you live in an urban setting, but if you have to hop in the car and make a trip to the store every day, which is what many people face now in the suburban landscape, that's a lot of wasteful consumption. I also think that for many people (our household included), you end up spending less by buying more in less trips. Yeah, I might be able to buy stuff for $9 per day, but add that up over the week and it's $63, versus spending $55 on a weekly trip.

Guest's picture
Guest

I agree, but...
it depends on your commute. I used to pass by a Ralph's and CVS and Trader Joe's everyday on my way home from work. Commuting time is often lost time, but if you use it pick up some quick groceries on the way home you can reclaim some of that time.

Be sure to put any coupons or sale circulars in your car so you have them on hand.

Guest's picture
michelle

It is simple to stock up on meat that has been marked down by simply throwing it in the freezer.

I do this frequently. Keep one of whatever I want out to cook the same day, freeze remaining items to be used the same day they are defrosted.

Of course, many grocery stores don't mark down meats. But great strategy for those that do.

Guest's picture
Carrie

When I buy meat that is about to expire, I usually throw it in the freezer. As long as you eat it as soon as it defrosts it will also be fine.
I agree with you, Philip -- I make a list of can't-miss bargains based on the weekly ad and my coupons, but then I keep my eyes open in the store for clearance items and such.
An alternative for people who have trouble with impulse buys but still wnat to be flexible is to only shop with cash. That way, you can't go over budget on an impulse.

Guest's picture
Dwight

I've stopped shopping for "lettuce" and started shopping for "greens". Whatever is cheapest is probably local and in good supply. In addition to saving money, this strategy has resulted in finding new vegetables with completely different flavors than the relatively tasteless lettuce I had been buying.

Guest's picture
vga

This is unworkable for three reasons.

1) I'd have to have all my recipes memorized or stored on a PDA. I'm a pretty good cook. But I'm not a free-form just throw stuff together and somehow it tastes good cook. I need to work off a recipe. So what if carrots are on sale if I need to run home and check the recipe to see what else I need before buying the carrots.

2) It pretty much requires that there is a store selling quality meat and veggies on your way home. I'm not so fortunate. I've got to go out of my way to get groceries. Not a problem on a weekend, but it would be a serious annoyance to do this every weekday.

3) I do not have that much free time or will power to devote to regular grocery store trips. Especially after a long and/or crappy day at work. Or even after a great day of work during the 6 months of winter we get. A lot of times I just want to go home.

Guest's picture
Diane

I used to shop this way. Then when I moved from San Francisco to the East Bay I switched to shopping once a week with a list and menu planning. My monthly bills went down by almost a third making this switch. Having done both models, I've found it's way more fiscally smart to shop less often.

Of course, knowing good sources for food is important too. I shop in Chinatown once every week for vegies, which are dirt cheap as that customer tends to shop daily, and the price model at those mom & pop stores is geared to "use it or lose it".

But shopping every day - really kind of inefficient I found.

Guest's picture
Diane

I forgot to add that I do look for sales when I shop. If I have "oranges" on my list for eating fruit, but find that apples are way cheaper, I buy those. If I have "snap peas" on the list for side veg, and find beans are cheaper, I buy those. But one can still do this and shop weekly. And shopping weekly is cheaper in general.

Guest's picture
Q

I have to agree with Diane #6. When I lived in a city with little storage, daily shopping was both convenient and necessary. In a more rural setting, however, we shop weekly. I don't think I ever paid less than $10 for one of those shop-for-today excursions, but our average dinner cost now is far less than that.

But I do agree with not being restricted to a list. We're investing in a chest freezer to allow us to take better advantage of big bargains on meat and other items that freeze well.

Guest's picture

I would find this method incredibly inconvenient and ultimately more expensive. We stock up on staples from warehouse stores, and hit the grocery store bi-weekly for the best deals. The only daily grocery store deals tend to be on high-fat products we can't use, like rotisserie chickens, ready-made sandwiches and soups.

Want fresh produce on the cheap? Hit your local produce market and learn how to blanch vegetables that can't be readily frozen. Eat what you can while it's fresh, preserve raw or cook-and-preserve the rest.

When it's available, we buy meat that's been reduced and either freeze it raw for future use, or cook it and freeze it for future use. We've always saved money by buying in bulk and meting out what we need a meal at a time until it's time to go back to the store.

Sorry, this way just seems like so much extra work for much less reward.

Guest's picture
Mom of three

I've been doing this for years and everybody always gives me a hard time about the daily shopping trip. I don't live in an urban area and the grocery store is a quick stop on the way home from work. I look for the marked down meat, bagged salad and dairy products. I rarely pay full price for a gallon of milk. Last time I paid .75 for a half gallon. It had 2 days left before the sell by date and my kids can finish that off in 2 days easily. Also, the markdowns in the bakery are incredible. We always get the rolls, bread and cakes that are more than half price. Some items we have loved and others we know to stay away from. I also pull out the coupons and see if I have one for what's on sale. Nice to know someone else appreciates this type of grocery shopping.

Guest's picture
Guest

i also enjoy shopping this way. i kinda do a combo. on the weekend, i'll make a big trip to get things i know we'll need, such as granola bars, soy milk, etc, or bulky things like toilet paper. then during the week, i get inspired by recipes i find on blogs, and pop by the store on my way home to get the ingredients. i keep staples at home (beans, rice, canned tomatoes, frozen peas), and just go by the store to get the rest. it helps me stay interested and engaged by the cooking process.

Guest's picture
Roxanne

Although this technique sounds great, I found it didn't work as well in my household. For one thing, it tended to mean that we were shopping while hungry, and so we'd pick up things that we didn't otherwise need.

We do best, both in terms of reducing waste and expense, by making a menu plan and shopping for most of the items once a week. Probably twice a week, either my husband or I will walk to the store and pick up something we need fresh for our menu plan (fish is a perfect example).

Still, I've seen our grocery bills go down significantly by getting 90% of our shopping in one trip.

Guest's picture
Amber

I would find this method too inconvenient - we make maybe 2 or 3 trips each week because the grocery store is literally a 5 minute walk but going every day would be a major pain, even that close.

That said, we generally buy our veggies only a day or two in advance, purposely waiting to buy things that will go bad quickly, like greens.

Also, whatever is cheapest in the flier is probably what is fresh and in-season. That makes it easy to do meal-planning *and* have fresh, local produce. We buy our meats from a local butcher (this is a sustainability, local commerce, organic, non-CAFO thing and it does cost more) but before I definitely bought the marked-down stuff and froze what I couldn't use right away.

Philip Brewer's picture

A few points:

First, I certainly don't try to get everything for a meal on one of these daily shopping ventures—just the fresh ingredients. I depend on the fact that we always have staples at home: rice, flour, herbs, spices, vinegar, condiments, etc.

Second, it's entirely possible to combine this with weekly (or monthly) shopping for staples, so there's no need to abandon your warehouse store membership. I try to pick up one or two staple items every day—but that's just me trying to put off having to make a major shopping outing. Still, eventually I need more stuff than I can easily carry home on foot, so I make a trip in the car and stock up. (Kitty litter and beer are common triggers.)

Third, it really helps to develop the skills of ad hoc cooking. I guess I came to that early, simply because I was a picky eater: There were so many things that I wouldn't eat, I always had to change recipes around. The result was that I learned early that it's easy to mix and match pieces from different recipes. See the two articles I linked to in the main post: Frugalize Any Recipe and Teach Yourself to Cook.

Thanks again for all the great comments!

Guest's picture
Meg

Being able to shop daily is definitely a privilege that many people don't have. It's not something that my husband and I have the time and energy for, despite the fact that we don't have any kids or other dependents. And I don't see how it would save us more than it would cost us in gas, let alone time.

However, I can see the benefits to shopping more often. I feel very lucky that I can shop once a week because eating fresh food is important to me. Meat isn't an issue as we're both vegan, but fresh veggies only last so long. It takes a little planning (though not necessarily full-out meal planning) to figure out what we can eat in time to avoid waste. I try to get some fresh things that will last longer than others and stagger it a bit. What we can't eat in time I try to preserve in some way, but we do pretty good. We compost what goes bad or just doesn't taste good, but most of that is stuff like the random orange that goes from perfect orange to green & white overnight.

@vga

It might be worth your time to look into method cooking, i.e. learn the *process* of a simple stir-fry or basic soup where you can substitute various veggies. There's a lot more freedom when you can get away from the recipes. It may take a while before you get up your cooking confidence, but when you realize how easy it is to substitute stuff then you can save a lot of money by being flexible. For example, I have a simple root mash recipe and it works well with a lot of different roots veggies. So, it's a great way to use up potatoes or carrots and maybe add in some seasonal stuff like turnips from the farmers' market. It's never the same, but that's what keeps it tasting fresh and new. And there's a lot of great tutorials online as well as recipes and substitute ideas for when you come home with some strange new veggie from the farmers' market and wonder, "What can I do with this?!" Goodness knows, I owe my own cooking skills to the internet and a lot of trial and error.

Guest's picture

This is a great idea and one that I sort-of adapt. I go grocery shopping 2-3 times per week on foot. That being said, I usually do plan my meals and plan my grocery list. I'm vegetarian so I don't do the meat thing, and buying almost-gone-bad-meat doesn't appeal to me... sorry. ;)

That being said I do buy spotted bananas and other fruits if I plan to use them right away. What I like about shopping often is buying the produce that's local and in season. I go through a lot of produce every week, so that's really the only reason I like to shop often. My staples are nuts and seeds, and those can last a long time as well.

In the end, I think it really depends on your diet. You can buy whatever's on sale or fresh, or you can follow your menu for the week and experience great food with a few substitutions. :)

Guest's picture

I use a price book and comparison shopping to figure out the cheapest possible prices on staples that don't go bad: dried beans, rice, flour, salt, spices, oil, vinegar etc. I stock up on those months ahead even once I find a good price. In France, milk is processed in such a way that you can stock it for 3 months! (kind of scary huh?)

Then I hit the farmer's market or green grocer twice a week and see what's in season/on sale. The same goes for meat. I take my fresh finds home and combine them with the staples to make a meal.

Guest's picture

I agree that this approach doesn't always work for everyone, but it works well for me. There are a few stores within walking distance from my house, or between work and home, and it's trivial to stop in on my bike ride home to pick up a few fresh ingredients. (Actually, frequent shopping is a necessity for me to some degree — I can only carry a relatively small amount of groceries when walking or biking.)

I've found that I waste less food shopping this way, because I know that I only ever need to buy a few days worth of fresh ingredients at a time. In the event that I'm not able to take a trip to the store for a day or two longer than I'd like, I take it as a good opportunity to go through the pantry and see if there are any older items that I can use up.

Guest's picture
AsianGal

I can do this because I'm currently free lancing as well as a full time stay-home wife and secretary.

However, I start cooking at around 3pm to get food on the table by 5pm as Asian food is not as easy as marinating something and tossing it into an oven, plus I make at least 3 dishes with rice or bread.
Sometimes I make pasta and that's when I start cooking at much later.

So I've got to already wake up very early daily to finish up and clean up house and then get onto finishing work before 3pm.

So going to the nearby supermarkets is a bit hard as

1. It will usually be at a specific time as opposed to the ideal random drop-ins for discounts.

2. I plan my meals weekly.

Any suggestion on how to solve this?

:: AsianGal

Guest's picture
cherie

As some other posters mentioned I also freeze reduced cost meat when I get a great deal - alternatively I COOK it and then freeze it - for example a few extra cooked meatloaves in the freezer are a godsend in my houehold!

A thought provoking post - I do shop more than one time a week but I'm RARELY shopping for 'today's' or even 'this week's' foodstuffs, just great bargains!

Guest's picture
Christie

If you live within walking distance of a grocery store with great local produce, this MIGHT be feasible. If you have to drive your car to get there, not feasible at all. I live 4 miles from town, a 7 minute drive and it costs at least a dollar to drive there and back in gas. Now I've just used up whatever savings there might have been on the groceries I just bought in gasoline! Not even to mention the time involved in going and finding out what is on sale, and then the time spend in preparation. If you make a menu in the beginning of the week, shop the local ads to find what's on sale that week, purchase all you'll need for those meals, and then do the preparation at the beginning of the week, it is much, much simpler. I buy meat at our local meat market, usually once or twice a month in bulk, trim and prepare the meat, then freeze. I've got everything I need for a few weeks worth of meals and then I plan accordingly.

Guest's picture
RJ Weiss

I use a pretty similar system.

One thing I noticed is that I waste a lot less food when I'm going to the store often. Mainly because my schedule changes so much.

If I go shopping once a week on Saturday, who knows what I'm doing Wednesday night. If all of a sudden my plans change and I'm eating dinner somewhere else, I got a lot of left over food at home.

Very interesting post!

Guest's picture
max

Bit of a strange top title, I have lived in many European contries and always shopped the way I did back at home in England. Big Shop once a week,including all fresh produce as it will usually last the week. I dont feel the shopping in Europe is vastly different enough to warrant this title.

Guest's picture
Guest

Shopping "European-Style" only works when you can shop early in the day. I live in Europe and work full-time. By the time I get to the store after work, it seems as though all the housewives in the country have bought the freshest of everything. The grocery stores around here do not stock until the next morning.

Guest's picture
J.

The big difference is that Europeans have walkable cities and do their shopping on foot. I certainly wouldn't want to encourage people to shop this way from their cars. My MIL thinks she's very Euro because she drives to the farmer's market several times a week. Sorry, that's very energy intensive.

(I know from your other posts that you walk and bike extensively, so this doesn't include you, Philip. But I think this should have been a major point in your article.)

Guest's picture
unique journalist

I'm actually thinking of trying this method of shopping. Fridge and freezer space are at a premium where I live (I'm sharing with three housemates). Ten years of being on my own have taught me that planning is not exactly my forte. I can do it, but I hate it, and sometimes I forget to put something on the list, so I have to make an extra trip anyway.

Can't tell you how many times I've salivated over fresh bread, or avoided the displays at the deli or seafood counters, or seen beautiful produce and said no because it'll spoil if I stock up. (Out of sight, out of mind.) So I might give this method a try.

Guest's picture
Frugal Guest

Who has time to shop every day? I do stock up on non-perishable items if they are on sale, however.

Guest's picture
Guest

We live in a suburb of a major metro area. I get paid once a month so we make a monthly trek to the warehouse store and the grocery store and Walmart/Target to stockup on the basics. We do buy some meat at the warehouse store and we keep our pantry stocked so we have all of the basics. Then during the month, my husband may stop at the grocery store two or three times a week to pick up the few fresh ingredients he needs to make dinner, depending on what's available and cheap and what he feels like making. Since we started this practice we've seen our grocery bills go down. It's also made it easier for my husband to come up with dinners, knowing he can go pick something up at the store if he's inspired in a particular way and we don't have the ingredients. My husband is retired and has physical therapy daily so he stops at the grocery store on his way home. This wouldn't work for everyone, but it does for us.

Guest's picture
Jacee

You insinuate that those who make a list do so to control their impulses. That's a limited view - I make a list to remember what I really need. Then I shop according to the specific bargains. Like other commenters here, shopping more than once a week is a waste of time and money for me. Money I can get more of - time, once spent, is gone forever. I'd rather be doing anything else besides spending even 20 minutes a day in the grocery store! Planning ahead has always proven to be more frugal and usually guarantees the intended results.

Philip Brewer's picture

Making a list is a great idea. What I object to is the notion that sticking to it is a virtue.

If there's a great deal on something that's not on your list, that's a great reason to deviate from your list. If something that's not on your list looks especially fresh, that's a reason to deviate. If some favorite item that you can't always get is on the shelf, consider buying it now.

I'm sure most people already do that; they use lists as you do—as a tool, not a straightjacket. But for some reason "sticking to the list" has become a measure of housekeeping orthodoxy.

Guest's picture
Lisa

I shop this way during the summer when I have more time during the day. During the school year it just doesn't work well for me. Walking would be a 30 minute round trip to the store. 10 minutes there--10 minutes back-- 10 minutes shopping. If I were to wait until after work to go shopping, I am sure that being tired/rushed would play into what I would buy. I would go for what is quick over what is less expensive. If the food is at home waiting for me, then it is much easier just to go home, use that additional 30 minutes, and do the work needed to put dinner on the table.

I also have to admit that I really hate crowds, and will shop super early in the morning just to avoid the crush. Right after work the grocery stores are way too busy for me.

Guest's picture
Dulin

I'm in college right now without a car, so I shop very much like this. I make sure to always have the staples (I often have a 3 item list of things like "flour, yeast, butter" so that I don't forget them) and then I pick up a few vegetables a few times a week. Fridge space is at a premium, and being a college student, money wasted on uneaten food is positively painful. This allows me to make some sort of vegetable and pasta dish or soup with ease. It probably helps that I find grocery shopping relaxing and stress relieving.

Guest's picture
Lisa

I'd be insane if I had to do that! I have 1.25 hour commute each way to work! I shop very carefully, buying meat only on sale or marked down. I don't use coupons very often becuase they generally are hard to find for fresh fruit, fresh veggies and meat! I use my freezer to advantage--freezing meat (and appropriate fruits) when on super sales. My local supermarket only gets so many shipments a week so I can't top what's there most days for freshness. Boutiques and CSAs are far from where I work and further from where I live. I'd love them if they were available.

Guest's picture
Guest

This sounds like a great plan for people who live near the supermarket, have extra time each day and can hold back from impulse buying.
As for only being able to buy meat that is marked down due to being close to the 'sell by' date, why can't you freeze the meat and use it when you need it? Some times I even freeze the meat for a couple of days if I think its close to being less then perfect.
I am looking at the comments and see others think the same way I do.
I actually do frequent the market (and by this I mean I end up going more than once a week) as I love to grocery shop but to plan to go every day when I have a full time job just does not sound like it would work for me.
The reality is Europeans for the most part live a different lifestyle than we Americans and going to the market daily for food is one big difference in our lifestyles.

Guest's picture
Guest

I could tell with the first two lines of the article "Make a grocery list and stick to it? That's a piece of advice that'll cost you a lot of money. " there was nothing true about this, because that comment is patently false and has been proven over and over again that multiple shopping trips equals MUCH MORE money. While some of it has something to with impulse, alot of it has to do with lack of planning leads to more ingredients being purchased just to make a meal. Not to mention the awful waste of time. I love the justification of I don't or money to do a larger shop and planning. Then you point out to someone who goes to the store everyday (or almost everyday) they are spending 20 minutes each time or more than an hour and 20 minutes a week, and at $15 bucks or so a shot (cheap) they are spending over $100 dollars a week. Abut what I spend every two weeks in time and money they are spending in one. Hey if you are to lazy to plan and shop at once then fine, but don;t try and make excuses everyone knows is untrue. By the way most people don't shop daily in Europe, they used to but not anymore.

Guest's picture
Guest

You realize you contradict yourself by saying if you don't shop everyday you miss out on the freshest stuff and spend more money, but then go on about how you save money because you can buy products ready to expire on sale. Products ready to expire are hardly the freshest.